By AZARIA HOWELL
Waking up to a brisk morning, the smell of cheap instant noodles flows across the hallways of my student accommodation. I check my bank account once again to see whether or not I have to dip into my savings to afford my next rent instalment. The textbooks I bought the other day created a sizeable dent in my wallet.
That was a recollection of my o-week. Whilst many of us talk about the toga parties, the copious amounts of alcohol we had, and the new friends we made, students are reluctant to tell the honest truth about financial hardship.
Victoria University increased its Hall prices by $4,000 from last year. Most students don’t have an extra four grand lying around, let alone the nearly $20,000 some students are being charged for a room.
Victoria University’s monopoly on first-year Halls means that they can essentially charge whatever they like and students will have to find the money to pay. Since most landlords require references which first-years don’t have, our only ‘choice’ is to stay in one of these Halls.
The current Covid-19 health crisis has caused a great deal of harm to students across Aotearoa. Universities have made the switch to online learning which has proved challenging for some, and whilst some tertiary providers took a premature break to support students under Alert Level 4, some didn’t.
Victoria University Halls kicked students out of their rooms within 48 hours, forcing students to drive home, or worse, buy flights or ferry trips to the South Island. This not only put students at a significant risk of catching the virus, but it also implied a false narrative about students in New Zealand – that we have money to drop on a last-minute flight in a crisis.
Many of us work low-wage jobs. I juggled a hotel cleaning job as well as work at Domino’s Pizza in high school; I briefly worked at another pizza place in Wellington before the lockdown – the minimum wage was all I knew.
Fast-forward to Alert Level 3. My stress has gradually dissipated and I was getting used to logging on Zoom every day to view a lecture. Despite the cost of the last Interislander ticket, I made it home and was told to stay home until Alert Level 2. The University cancelled our rent payments until we were to return home, a weight had been lifted off of my shoulders. Victoria University Hall residents who were (now) scattered across the country took a collective sigh of relief.
Being a student in lockdown wasn’t so stressful at this point. Granted, I was upset at the University for forcing students to go home against our will, but the promise of the halls being rent-free until we were able to return was enough to make me consider forgiving them.
Attending lectures virtually from the comfort of my own home wasn’t so bad for me, I was privileged enough to have home-cooked meals and a decent wifi connection. The blessing of a working wifi connection also meant my emails came through quickly, which happened to be the case on April 24th. All Victoria University Hall residents received an email informing them that we would be charged $150 per week under Alert Level 3, despite not being able to return until Alert Level 2.
Many of us were outraged. What had happened to our University pledging to support students under this crisis?
Our collective stress had once again returned. Many of us had lost our jobs and had no real source of income at this time.
Hundreds of students and concerned parents emailed the University about the injustice of this fee change. The University doubled down by threatening to fire cleaning staff and residential advisors, rather than taking a good look at their profit margins and the Vice-Chancellor’s pay. The government did their bit by attempting to step in and support students during these tough times. The word ‘support’ is used loosely here.
Students were given an extra $1000 in course-related loans. Whilst many saw this as the right move, we realised that these loans would have to be paid back eventually, pushing many into even further student debt. Victoria University only reversed its decision to charge students rent for rooms they could not access due to a student-led rent strike of over 1,500 people. Without the massive backlash the University faced, students would still be paying rent for rooms they cannot access.
There are many possible ways universities and the Government can support students in tough times. Increasing rent and increasing debt doesn’t support people known to live off instant noodles and low-wage jobs.
Azaria is a huge politics nerd living in Christchurch. Expect lots of new political articles on Tearaway from her! She also loves snowboarding, Beagles, and wearing clunky boots.